How do you push forward when you’ve lost your job, your home, and your romantic partner? The central character of Aisha Franz’s graphic novel, Shit Is Real (Drawn & Quarterly), is dealing with this triplicate of misfortune, sending her a downward spiral as she struggles to maintain personal relationships and find purpose in her aimless life. This might sound like fairly typical alt-comics fare, but the German cartoonist imbues the story with ingenuity thanks to a surreal perspective that blurs the line between reality and dreaming.
Drawn with smudgy pencils that give the narrative a fundamental instability, Shit Is Real is a deeply expressive exploration of one woman’s fragile mental state. Selma is weighed down by her anxieties, presented in dreams and hallucinations that push the artwork into abstract territory. She tries to break free from these burdens by stepping into the luxurious life of her next-door neighbor, who drops her apartment keycard on her way out of town. Selma lives in a mostly empty, unadorned space, so she’s awestruck by the impeccable design and sheer amount of stuff in her neighbor’s apartment. But this illusion is a temporary fix. The title appears regularly throughout the story on a painting that hangs above Selma’s bed, and as she immerses herself in her neighbor’s life, the painting is a reminder of the truth she’s trying to escape.
As more and more of our life experience becomes digitized and automated, Aisha Franz looks at the value of things with physical form and practical function. Franz’s satirical take on technology isn’t far from our current reality. Restaurant menus are viewed on your smart device by scanning a code, and the cartoonish filters of Snapchat have made their way into video chat so people are presented as chibi versions of themselves. Technology is often presented as an inconvenience, like when Selma is asked for her membership information in order to use a public laundry machine, and a barrier to personal interaction. Rather than asking someone in her building to take care of her pet while she’s away, Selma’s neighbor has an automatic food dispenser to feed her cat during her frequent traveling.
The plot jumps forward in time for the final chapter, revealing a more well-adjusted Selma who has started to fill her apartment with the things she envied in her neighbor’s home. She’s out of her funk, and is now helping her best friend, Yumi, overcome her recent breakup. This final chapter establishes Selma and Yumi as the central relationship of the book, and the conclusion adds new layers of meaning to their previous interactions. Yumi initially comes across as a bit player in Selma’s lonely story, but their connection is what ultimately gives Selma some semblance of a purpose, even if it’s not a grand plan for her life: She can be there for a friend that needs her, giving her something real to rely on in a period of uncertainty.